5 Ingenious Everyday Objects Invented by Mainers

A new book of inventions is a testament to Mainers' cleverness.

By Will Grunewald

Mainers have MacGyvered some pretty neat stuff over the years, and in his new book, Downeast Genius, Colby College historian Earl Smith tells the stories of that stuff — scores of significant inventions, connected in various ways to Maine, from the 19th and 20th centuries. “Thomas Edison once said all anyone needed to invent something was a good imagination and a pile of junk,” Smith writes. “As things turned out, imagination and creativity have always been essential qualities for survival in Maine, and the ingrained habits of ‘saving up’ and ‘making do’ inevitably produce heaps of junk.”

Maine woodsmen were once in the habit of chewing on hardened spruce sap. Around 1850, one such woodsmen, John B. Curtis, devised how to commercialize that experience, combining spruce sap, maple syrup, sugar, and cornstarch into the first mass-produced chewing gum.

At a mill in upstate New York, Martin Keyes had watched workers eat lunches off wood scraps. Later, in 1902, while supervising a pulpwood plant in Gorham, he thought up a machine for making paper plates, and the Waterville factory he built still operates today.

Chester Greenwood, a 16-year-old from Farmington, got cold ears. So, in 1874, his grandmother helped him attach beaver fur to either end of a wire that fit over his head. Within a few years, he had the patent for earmuffs and a factory stitching 500,000 pieces of winter headgear annually.

People have been picking their teeth since the beginning, but it was Charles Forster who standardized the utensil when, in 1887, he started making wooden toothpicks in a former starch mill in Strong. Soon, he was churning out 20 million picks a day.

Likely inspired by the ski-and-tread design of massive, plodding log haulers (also a Maine invention), O.C. Johnson, of Waterville, revved up the first snowmobile in 1909, almost half a century before Arctaris, a Minnesota company, brought a streamlined version to market.

Downeast Genius ($17.95, softcover) is out May 18 from Islandport Press.